NEW ORLEANS -- The scrubby lots at the intersection of Jackson Avenue and South Johnson Street, blocks from the Louisiana Superdome and a mile-and-a-half from the French Quarter, seem little different than any of the other rough-and-tumble street corners in this city, still recovering four years after Hurricane Katrina.
But soon, the lots will be cleared of trash and covered in sunflowers, whose seeds will then be collected and converted into biodiesel fuel. The small project, symbolic of the city's ongoing makeover, is being engineered jointly by a New Orleans development firm and Pittsburgh's GTECH Strategies.
GTECH -- Growth Through Energy and Community Health -- is a 2-year-old outfit that plants "energy" crops on blighted, vacant land, with a primary goal of turning those problem spots into community gardens, and secondary goals of creating green jobs and eventually turning those crops into fuel. GTECH, a not-for-profit startup, sees opportunity in both the region's vacant industrial fields, as well as its many empty residential lots.
Biofuel is not the final aim, but the means to the end, said Andrew Butcher, one of GTECH's principals. "The end goal [is] for GTECH to transition environmental liabilities into community-based opportunities," he said. "Biofuel crops are an ideal mechanism for activating and catalyzing the vacant space," and maybe even a mechanism to pay for the clean-up process, once the feedstock can be easily, and profitably, converted into commercial-grade fuel.
The fuel end of the equation is the one with all the X factors, as it's still not economically viable to convert sunflowers, switchgrass and poplar trees into auto fuel on a large scale. That's something companies large and small are still working on. In the meantime, GTECH is collecting some of the sunflower seeds from its harvests and selling them in Whole Foods and other spots, as a way to publicize its mission (and make a little bit of cash).
GTECH, birthed by three Carnegie Mellon University grad students and the executive director of Steel City Biofuels, has remediation projects ongoing in Hazelwood, East Liberty, Lawrenceville and Larimer, and others that may come on line in the next year. The New Orleans venture, called Project Sprout, is its first project outside of the Pittsburgh region.
The New Orleans-based partner in Project Sprout is Green Coast Enterprises, a real estate company that specializes in eco-friendly housing.
"Most real estate solutions don't have a good answer for how you deal with a neighborhood that has really significant blight," said Will Bradshaw, president of Green Coast.
And New Orleans, especially post-Katrina, has some really serious blight, making it a natural fit for GTECH's revival mission. Pittsburgh, it has been estimated, has more than 14,000 vacant lots awaiting a higher, better use -- the same acreage as five Central Parks in New York City. In New Orleans, there are 65,000 blighted properties or empty lots, according to a Brookings Institution report.
The plots at Jackson and South Johnson are in the Mid-City district, near the B.W. Cooper apartments (also known as the Calliope Projects, at one time one of the most crime-ridden apartment communities in the city, until it was emptied by Hurricane Katrina, then mostly demolished last year). Despite the state of the neighborhood, the lot's proximity to B.W. Cooper -- which is now being rebuilt -- means the sunflower project will be visible to many passers-by, Mr. Bradshaw said.
Mr. Bradshaw and his business partner, Reuben Teague, were introduced to the GTECH partners last year during a seminar staged by Echoing Green, a fellowship program that funds social entrepreneurs. Both GTECH and Green Coast were awarded two-year funding fellowships last year and realized that they were a good match for each other's missions.
Project Sprout has been in the planning stages for months, but work began on the lots two weeks ago, with a work crew making its first appearance to begin clearing the lots of debris.
In some ways, this type of project might be easier to accomplish in New Orleans, with a longer growing season and properties that are easier to convert into minifarms. In Pittsburgh, when a home is razed, it used to be the case that some of the refuse would be bulldozed into the below-ground basement, then covered with a layer of topsoil. That means the soil is strewn with wood, bricks, rebar, glass and other trash.
In New Orleans, though, cellars are far more scarce.
"A lot of Northeast cities have the crush-and-dump technique," said Chris Koch, a GTECH principal. In New Orleans, "there's a lot less rubble in the ground."
The New Orleans pilot lots are small, and won't produce more than a few packets of seeds or more than a few gallons of fuel a year (this will probably be done through the New Orleans Youth Bio-Fuels Initiative and the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center). But the fuel isn't the point, said Mr. Bradshaw. The point is to show how blighted lots can be remade, in a utilitarian way, and then to replicate the project at sites across the city. Do it at enough sites, on a large enough scale -- either there, or in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Baltimore or Detroit -- and you have a platform for "green" jobs, the kind that our governor and our president so desperately want to cultivate.
"There's a real possibility," Mr. Bradshaw said, "to help people envision their neighborhood and their spaces in new ways."
Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette or 412-263-2625.